Everywhere Danny Manning goes, he hears them talking about him. He hears the raves, and he reads them. He knows he is special. If being one of two high school players invited to the Olympic basketball trials in April didn't tell him that, then the furor surrounding his recruiting surely must have. If the praise of pro scouts doesn't convince him, the words of his college coach, Kansas' Larry Brown, should:
"Danny Manning is the most complete young player I have ever seen. He'll be the best."
Brown doesn't throw out those words lightly. Having coached David Thompson in the NBA, he knows the special burdens of extraordinary talent. But Danny Manning -- 18 years old, 6 feet 10 1/2 inches tall, 213 pounds, a freshman -- is that good. The names raised in comparison -- Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving -- make it clear just what the expectations are.
Danny Manning laughed softly when he heard the praise repeated, dancing eyes lighting up his long, narrow face. It was Thanksgiving morning, 24 hours before his first college game in the Great Alaska Shootout in Anchorage, and Manning, who might have set an NCAA record this fall for interviews given before playing in a college game, was patiently answering questions again.
"When I hear people talking about how good I'm supposed to be, I laugh," he said. "I know how much I still have to learn. All I know is, I love to play the game."
Manning, who will play here against George Washington Saturday at Smith Center, has that blend of skills and size that few are blessed with. He can run and jump. He can shoot and pass and handle the ball. He plays the game with savvy and confidence, always seeming to go to the right place on the floor. And, if his first weekend of college ball is any indication, he isn't afraid to go elbow to elbow underneath.
"I told my guys to rough him up a little because freshmen usually shy away from that kind of thing," Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell said. "But it didn't seem to bother him at all. He stepped right in there and mixed it up. Seems like if he makes a mistake, he figures out what it is real fast."
That might be Manning's ultimate skill. He is the son of Ed Manning, a former NBA and ABA player. If the father has passed anything on to the son, it would appear to be an understanding of the game. "He plays like a coach's son," said Tom Newell, chief scout for the Indiana Pacers. "His fundamentals are very sound and he's a very intelligent player."
Manning is a coach's son. Ed Manning is an assistant at Kansas. That is part of the Danny Manning story: Ed was hired by Brown three months before Danny signed to play at Kansas.
"My harshest critic, always on me," the son said with a grin. The father answered, "I don't let him get away with anything."
They enjoy one another. At a pretournament cocktail party in Alaska, Brown referred to Danny Manning as "a freshman who just happened to move to Lawrence, Kansas, last fall."
Everyone laughed. In Lawrence, the laughing and hollering probably will grow louder as the season goes on.
The best. There can only be one.
Larry Brown was throwing the passes. "One dribble, guys," he said, again and again. Danny Manning was trying to do what his coach asked. One time, though, he took a second dribble because otherwise he would have traveled. Another time he lost control of the ball. A third time he missed the layup.
Slowly, he walked to the end of the line. Maybe it was being 4,000 miles from home on Thanksgiving Day or maybe he was just cold. But he wasn't having a good practice. He put his hands on his hips, bent over and shook his head in disgust, muttering in frustration.
A moment later, his turn came again. Brown slipped him the short pass. Manning planted his right foot, pivoted to the left, took one dribble and left his feet. This time he didn't bobble the ball or come up short. He kept soaring until finally he slammed the ball emphatically through the hoop.
"That's it, Danny," Brown said, clapping his hands like an overjoyed kid. "That was a great move."
The corners of Manning's mouth moved just a tiny bit, so little that his smile was almost imperceptible. "Every day he gets a little better," Brown said later. "He's an unbelievably quick learner."
One day later, in his first college basketball game, Manning flashed through the key, took a pass similar to the one Brown had been throwing him the previous day and took one dribble. As he went up, Maryland's Terry Long moved to stop him. Manning just kept climbing like a helicopter leaving a roof below him. When he reached the apex of his jump, Manning softly flicked the ball over Long and into the net.
One day later, just a little better.
Jerry West, general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, watched in wonder that night. "He's so unusual for a young kid because he has all this energy and it's always directed in the right places," West said. "Most young kids misdirect their energy. He's unselfish, he can play with talented people and he's wonderfully competitive."
Special players face special pressures. Ralph Sampson never overcame the desire not to stand out at Virginia. Patrick Ewing has always preferred that he be Georgetown's last resort offensively. Manning seems to relish the pressure. Even though he calls himself "a role player," his desire to compete, to be right in the crucible during a tough game, is quickly evident.
"That's the way he's always been," his father said. "When he was little, he always wanted to play with the big kids. Beating kids his own age wasn't enough of a challenge. He's never been afraid of anything on a basketball court."
People began rhapsodizing about Manning when he was a 15-year-old sophomore at Page High School in Greensboro, N.C. Today, pro scouts marvel at his passing and ballhandling, skills rarely seen in a young big man. Ed Manning thinks he knows why.
"Danny's always loved little kids," Ed Manning said. "He used to go out in the yard and make four or five of them try to take the ball away from him. They'd go at it for hours. Danny has always had a ball in his hands, day and night. I think that's part of the reason he's such a good ballhandler now. Then, when he played with the older kids, they always made him pass to them because he was the youngest. That made him a great passer."
He was one of those players everyone wanted. These days, that kind of story -- prodigy pursued -- hardly is unusual.
But Manning, being the son of a former pro who had coaching aspirations, was not your typical blue-chip recruit. When Ed Manning was hired by Kansas, the screams from the state of North Carolina probably were audible in Alaska.
"When people say my father got the job just because of me, I laugh," Danny Manning said. "If people say he can't coach, how do they explain me? He's the one who taught me how to play the game and people seem to think I'm a pretty good player."
Manning was exposed to basketball as a tot. His father would take him to practice, and he remembers enjoying those practices, watching the big men do impossible things with a ball that seemed so huge to him. "I always liked practice better than the games," he said. "The games were too loud. They gave me a headache."
Toward the end of his career, Ed Manning played for the Carolina Cougars in the ABA. The coach was Brown. "What people forget is that I knew Danny before he was a basketball player," Brown said. "I remember him trying to imitate his dad when he would come to shootarounds on game days."
The shootarounds ended for Ed Manning in 1976. He turned to coaching, working at North Carolina A&T as an assistant to Gene Littles, a former Cougars teammate. Then he coached in Europe for a year. After that, the jobs stopped. Manning settled his family in Greensboro and went to work driving a truck.
In the meantime, the little boy that Brown remembered was turning into a man. As a high school sophomore, he was 6-9 and his talent was apparent.
As late as the end of his junior year, it seemed certain Manning would go to college in North Carolina -- either UNC or N.C. State. Kansas was on his list of schools, but North Carolina appeared to be leading. "We thought we were in good shape with him," Coach Dean Smith said. "I was probably leaning toward Carolina," Manning agreed.
But a funny thing happened to Manning on his way to Chapel Hill. During the summer of 1983, Brown was looking for an assistant coach. "I offered it to (Carolina assistant) Roy Williams and to (former UCLA assistant) Kevin O'Connor," Brown said. "They both turned it down."
Brown, with the help of Smith, his former college coach and former boss, put together a list of six candidates. Smith remembers discussing the names with Brown. Then Smith left for Europe. When he returned, he called his office from New York. Assistant Bill Guthridge got on the phone and asked Smith to guess who Brown had hired.
"I went through the list of names that Larry and I had discussed," Smith said. "When Bill said it was Ed, I was certainly surprised. It was news to me."
It was news to the rest of the basketball world, too. There were immediate allegations that Brown hired Ed Manning to recruit his son. "When Larry and I talked about the job on the phone, we both knew what people would say," Ed Manning said. "I wanted to make sure it wouldn't bother my family. When they said they could handle it, I told Larry I'd like the job."
Manning's family was overjoyed at the offer, partly because they knew he wanted to get back into coaching but also because he had undergone triple-bypass heart surgery the previous fall at the age of 39. Driving a truck was not conducive to good health in a man with a heart condition.
The publicity surrounding Brown's hiring of Manning was less than positive. The fact that Kansas had to change the job description to eliminate a college diploma as a requirement -- Ed Manning left Jackson State one math course short of a degree -- didn't help matters.
"It didn't bother me when people criticized me because even though I'm sensitive to it, I'm used to it," Brown said. "But some people were really cruel to Ed, describing him as just a truck driver. Look, I offered the job to two people before Ed's name even came up. If you check my record, I've always hired my friends as assistants. Ed was a friend and I wanted someone who would be loyal. Usually, guys who played for you are loyal. If the whole thing was premeditated, why would I have offered the job to the other guys? I'm not that smart."
Ed Manning concedes that based strictly on experience or coaching ability, he might not have been the No. 1 candidate. "I don't claim to know a hell of a lot about coaching," he said. "But I'm willing to work like hell to learn."
Brown also points out that hiring a coach to help in getting a player is something of a Big Eight tradition. In recent years, it has happened at Kansas (twice), Kansas State, Oklahoma and Missouri.
Danny Manning was thrilled when his father got the job. But he did not relish leaving Greensboro for Lawrence. "In Greensboro, there's always something to do," he said. "In Lawrence, there's something to do but you have to go out and find it."
The North Carolina schools kept pursuing Manning that fall, but there really wasn't much doubt about where he was going. "If Danny didn't want to go to Kansas, that was okay with me," Ed Manning said. "But if I couldn't convince my own son that the school I was working at was good enough for him, I wouldn't be much of a recruiter, would I?"
Danny Manning signed a letter-of-intent with Kansas that November.
In his first three college games, Manning, starting at power forward (he can also play small forward or big guard), didn't shoot well (14 of 35) but played good defense, had 31 rebounds and made several plays that were breathtaking, often running the middle of the fast break. He will come to George Washington averaging 13 points and 8.8 rebounds in Kansas' first eight games. Since Alaska, he has shot 29 of 51 from the field, including a 28-point performance against Houston on Saturday. He also leads the team in steals (17) and has blocked 11 shots. The Jayhawks are 7-1.
"He's a young player," Oregon Coach Don Monson said after Kansas had dismantled his team. "But he's learning very, very fast."
Manning's future is limitless. His present is merely fabulous.